The cinema through Rosebud-colored glasses. There is hardly a shot in Orson Welles’ towering achivement that doesn’t employ some sort of ingenious trick involving the camera, editing, sound, staging or production design. Kane didn’t invent all of its techniques, but it’s one of the few pictures I can think of that uses almost every one in the movie playbook. The film is like a dictionary of the cinematic language, even to this day. First released to little fanfare in 1941 but since a critical touchstone, Kane, in retrospect, seems designed to do nothing less than win best-movie-of-all-time honors. It’s that ambitious, that audacious, that confident, that good. Welles, who directed and co-wrote the script with Herman Mankiewicz, stars as Charles Foster Kane. As a boy, Kane is sent away by his mother to grow up in the privileged care of a wealthy guardian. Although that upbringing allows him great material comfort – eventually a newspaper empire modeled upon that of the actual William Randolph Hearst – it also leaves him an emotional wound from which he never fully recovers.
Kane is founded on simple pop psychology, yet the cinematic technique Welles and his collaborators employed to flesh their fictional biopic out is astonishing. One of the first visual flourishes is an exterior shot of Kane’s deathbed silhouette through the glow of his castle window, just before he utters his mysterious last word, “Rosebud.” With a flash of lightning and a subtle shift of the lighting scheme, we’re suddenly looking at Kane from the opposite perspective, from inside the room. Often, Kane travels without the help of conventional editing. From there, the movie skips back to discover how the once playful boy turned carefree young millionaire turned idealistic journalist wound up as a bitter, defeated and lonely old man. We learn about him mainly through flashbacks narrated by crucial figures in his life, including Joseph Cotton as his once-loyal friend Jedidiah Leland and Dorothy Comingore as his second wife Susan Alexander. Put these disparate pieces together and you get a definitive portrait of American success as its own worst enemy. The higher Kane rises, it seems, the less happy he is. Early on, in one of the movie’s countless classic lines, a young Kane offers a prescient observation: “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” At least Kane is a really great movie – perhaps the greatest.